This week, I am going to talk about something I have puzzled about ever since I was a child but never really taken seriously: the search for extra terrestrial intelligence. SETI, like AI, is one of those elusive, almost dream like goals whose goalposts keep changing. What would count as a truly alien intelligence? When can we say we have discovered (or more likely, stumbled upon) an alien civilization?

I remember Carl Sagan talking about the Golden Record in the Voyager spacecraft, which was his view of the top ten hits of human existence. It has the usual suspects, starting with Mozart and going on to other peaks of civilization as conceived by white male nerds in 1977. OK, that was probably a little unfair, but in retrospect, Sagan’s idea of intelligence and civilization looks rather parochial to me. We are still saddled with a view of aliens as green eyed monsters who play the world of warcraft at a cosmic scale.

The search for intelligence remains the most anthropomorphic of quests; which means that asking whether robots will ever be intelligent is a little bit like asking whether planes fly or not. There’s no principled answer to that question: most of us intuitively think that planes fly, but that’s about it as far as science goes.

Certainly, planes don’t fly in the way birds and insects do and their capacity to fly isn’t based on a genetic endowment of the kind birds and insects have. On the other hand, both mechanical and biological flight are grounded in the principles of fluid dynamics. We can’t build aircraft without understanding how air flows around wings, though it goes without saying that a bird doesn’t understand the principles of aerodynamics in anything like the way an aerospace engineer does. These are different regimes of knowledge. 

In other words, flight is a believable abstraction; we are able to separate out the ability to be in the air for extended periods of time from its biological or mechanical implementation. It doesn’t depend on having feathers or landing gear. Flying doesn’t mean flying like a bird anymore. 

SETI is quite different. We are still focused on finding traces of advanced civilizations, i.e., beings who are like us, but better. I think that’s a major problem in AI as well. Take the Turing test for example: the goal is to create a machine whose answers to questions can’t be distinguished from a human’s answers to the same questions. How much more anthropomorphic can you get? 

SETI and AI pose a metaphysical quandary: on the one hand, we want to understand alien or robotic intelligence on it’s own terms (where the term “alien” encompasses terrestrial intelligence that’s very different from ours — gut bacteria, redwood trees etc) but the only tools and intuitions we have are our own minds and our cultural presuppositions about intelligence. 

Strangely, I think we should explore SETI for the same reason we sit down on a cushion and meditate, i.e., to explore ourselves but also to set aside and ultimately reject self-indulgent and parochial impressions of ourselves. It’s really a religious quest as much as a scientific one. Seen this way, it doesn’t surprise me that the techno-religious cults that have sprung up in the last fifty years (such as the “singularity”) and their manifestation in art (“The Matrix”) are all to do with AI and SETI. As religions go, these alien dreams are shallow spiritual systems, but they have unerringly identified a new direction for contemplation. 

The exploration of Mind and minds — our minds, the minds of other species, the minds of aliens, the minds of robots — and ultimately, the search for the origins of order and organization, is exactly the kind of exploration that brings science together with religion. It’s a search that would be as familiar to the Zen masters of China as the astronomer in her observatory. It is for that reason, not the preserve of scientists alone. Or in some crazy inversion of priorities, to be located in an imagined past of Vedic astronautics.

The adventure of the mind is a new adventure, pointing toward the future, not the past. It’s like Siva’s marriage procession, with room for gods and humans, beasts and demons. Inner space and outer space are deeply intertwined after all.

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